The first menu I ever wrote was the best menu that ever existed.
And it makes sense, after all, I’d had a lifetime to hone it. Every item on there was an homage to every morsel of food I’d enjoyed up to that point in my life. It spanned the entire spectrum of my culinary knowledge and experience; I’d left no stone unturned.
This menu, this monument to food service, would garner the highest acclaim known to man!
I ended up changing most of it after the first week.
And that’s the thing about writing a menu; it’s not about what you can do with food, it’s what you can do with a kitchen.
There’s a difference between these two things, I promise.
So, it turns out that all of these meals I’d spent years perfecting at home didn’t really translate to a cafe menu quite as seamlessly as I’d envisioned.
The meals that I had painstakingly crafted to perfection just didn’t work in my cafe kitchen, and the issues were glaringly obvious to anyone who cared to look hard enough.
Sadly, through my rose-tinted glasses, I was blind to them.
The best example of this would be my corned beef hash.
I grew up eating corned beef hash, so naturally, I wanted to share my culinary heritage with the Australian public. And although the cuisine of Northern England isn’t on par with the likes of Asia, or the Mediterranean, or South America, I thought that there was still something to offer.
And guys, I’d tweaked this thing to within an inch of divinity. The tinned corned beef of my youth was replaced with an ethical, sustainable hunk of cow that I’d cooked slowly overnight at home. The potato was creamy and buttery, and when mixed together it created a mouthful so cosy it felt like a hug from your Nan.
Plated up, a mound of pinkish/beigeish slop doesn’t look too appealing, so I employed a technique I would lean on for years to come: cover the whole thing in enough grated pecorino to induce heart failure, and plop a poached egg atop it, like a gloopy king at his beefy throne. I chucked a couple of whole dill pickles on the side for some acidity to cut through all of the richness, and there it was, the jewel in my menu-shaped crown.
The only issue was, without a microwave, or an oven, or even a stovetop, I had no viable way to reheat the thing.
And so went a week of sandwiching an inch-thick layer of corned beef & mashed potato between two sheets of baking paper, then pressing it in a sandwich press, only to discover that it was all dried out, so I had to slather it with butter to make it edible which made it way too greasy.
Pair this with similar issues around my Bubble & Squeak, and the dream was over before it really started.
I had to go back to the drawing board, and really think hard about what I could realistically make with the very limited facilities at my disposal: a sandwich press, a pot of boiling water & vinegar for poaching eggs, and a salamander grill.
I also had to think about what would sell, whilst toeing the line of maintaining some point of difference and an identity to my menu.
This meant that there was a lot of poached eggs on things like salads and bruschettas. I decided to offer rotating sides to give myself some form of constant creativity. And I lifted my sandwich game.
Never underestimate the selling power of a sandwich.
And sure, there were a lot of things on there that weren’t 100% to my liking, but I was still learning how to do this.
I had mushrooms on offer year-round, even though I’m not a funghi…erm…guy. And heirloom tomatoes because I liked the weird colours they came in, even though their season lasts about two weeks in the summer before the prices skyrocket again.
If any of you know me, even a little, you know that I reserve a certain type of hatred for the avocado. Let me list them for you:
- Little bits of green EVERYWHERE
- Shepherds are made of rubber
- Expensive dumb hand grenades
And look, I know I’ve just annoyed most of you, but hear me out.
Can you describe the flavour of an avocado? Exactly, it just kind of tastes like green, right? And how many hours have you wasted squeezing them in the supermarket, only to get home and discover that that perfect amount of give was either a lie, and the thing’s suddenly made of rocks, or it’s just plain decayed beyond recognition? Or it’s 90% seed. You’ve been there, yet still you continue with the blind faith that the next one will be good.
And then shepherd season comes around, and they never ripen! I once received a tray of these frauds that I could’ve played handball with and they still wouldn’t have softened. I left them out for a month and they were still so solid I could’ve blacksmithed on them and finally found a use for the shepherd avocado.
And the tiny specks of green that get everywhere. I reckon I’ve still got a few t-shirts with this stuff on them. It’s like glitter, only worse because it’s avocado.
But the best reason I hate them? They dominated every other menu item. All of my time and efforts creating new and exciting dishes was for nothing. People would simply order the eggs with avocado and be done with it. So much wonderful, flavourful stock went to waste because the public had the blinkers on when they read the menu.
They deserved better than that, so I got rid of it.
And that became a running trend for me. Whenever something got too popular that it seemed like I was only making that one thing, I called time and took it away. I never wanted to become a purveyor of just one thing (shout out 3 cheese toastie though), I got bored. And hey, they always got over their loss, and moved onto the next thing that I’d eventually get rid of, so it still worked out.
But I needed more. More variety, more techniques, which meant one thing: more equipment.
I decided I needed an oven. And look, I didn’t need the best oven money could buy, I just needed something that could bake some banana bread (that stuff sells so well, it became known as the ‘avocado of the cabinet’ only it tasted like something), maybe some cookies, and it could roast some savoury stuff too. You know, just a basic oven.
So, naturally, I decided to buy a Unox Cheftop which, if you didn’t already know, is very much not a basic oven. It cleaned itself, had a touchscreen with built-in recipes, it steamed, had a built-in thermometer, and it even came with wifi because, hey, why not? It cost me $14k (about $13k more than a good 2nd hand oven that would’ve worked just fine), and took up half of my kitchen.
My proudest moment came when it roasted two whole chickens perfectly, at the same time, in 45 minutes. It was glorious.
It also sprung a leak the week after the warranty expired, and the detergent required for the self-cleaning cost more than Jeff Bezos’s divorce.
Plus, about a month after purchasing it, I discovered that my menu rut wasn’t down to my lack of equipment, it was down to a lack of inspiration overall.
You see, meat kind of tastes like meat, whatever way you look at it. You can season it, or dress it differently, but there’s only so many ways a piece of beef can taste, and they all kind of taste like beef.
And this was true for most of my menu.
Salami tastes like salami. And ham? Besides ridiculous things like Iberrico, ham has to be the least exciting meat out there.
So, I decided to make a radical change and went full-vegetarian.
I know it worked, I’d worked at a vegetarian cafe that collected acclaim like it was little green bits of a disgusting breakfast mainstay.
There’s so many upsides to serving vegetarian food commercially. Let me list them:
- Keeps things seasonal
- In-season produce is both cheap and at the height of it’s quality
- More range of flavours
- Better for the planet
- Guys, we live in a produce growing utopia!
There’s also the added benefit of more press. As soon as I went vegetarian, I sent out a press release to everybody who’d written about us, and guys, they wrote about us again! Scores of new customers arrived to try our new vegetarian fair.
As soon as an ingredient’s season started coming to an end, the prices would go up and the quality would go down so it made changing the menu easier to justify too.
I also scrapped my paper menus in favour of a chalkboard so that I could save money (and paper) as I knew my menu would be changing more often. This also had the added bonus of being able to remove items purely because I didn’t feel like making them that day. If you ever came into my place and your favourite thing was ‘sold out’, chances are I had plenty, but I just wasn’t feeling it that day. Sorry.
And look, in the end, I reckon I’d written the best menu that ever existed about 200 times in a row.
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